General Thomas Carmichael Hindman was Arkansas's highest ranking Confederate military officer and one of the most controversial figures the State has ever known. He was born in January 1828 in Knoxville, Tennessee to a distinguished family descended from notable English and Scottish ancestors. His father was supposedly the first male child born in Knoxville, served in the War of 1812, and was an ambassador to the Indian nations. The family lived in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Thomas was educated at the Lawrenceville Classical Institute which enjoyed a national reputation on par with Andover and Exeter. The school placed great emphasis on oratory and debate. Tom graduated with high honors and spent some time in New York after graduation.
Upon his return to Mississippi he started to study law until interrupted by the Mexican War. At the outbreak of war he joined the Mississippi State Troops but, much to his consternation, his unit served as occupation troops and played no part in the active campaigning. Hindman did serve as a post adjutant until wars end.
He returned to Mississippi to continue his law studies and became involved in State politics. He was active in the Sons of Temperance society, served as a delegate to the county Democratic Convention and the Southern States Rights Convention and supported Jefferson Davis's losing campaign for Governor of Missississippi. Shortly thereafter Hindman was elected to the State Legislature.
Hindman soon found himself a small fish in the big pond of Mississippi politics and cast his eye across the river to the developing frontier State of Arkansas. Hindman ferried across the river to Helena and found it ideal for his purposes. He moved there and set up his law practice and soon made friends with Patrick R. Cleburne. During this period the hot-headed Hindman fought several duels and both he and Cleburne were wounded by rivals.
Arkansas, since its territorial days, had been ruled by a political "dynasty" or "family". Hindman soon came to the attention of the dynasty when he successfully rid the State of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party with his own oratory and organizational skills. His standing continually increased and he very quickly became leader of the Democratic forces in eastern Arkansas and soon had a Congressional seat where he had a reputation as a fire-eater and orator supreme.
Back in Arkansas, a rift soon developed between the dynasty and the young Congressman. The dynasty had allowed Know-Nothings and old-Whigs into the dynasty to achieve their ends. Hindman was livid and declared war on the dynasty.
This political war was a bitter one, but Hindman's oratorial and organizational skills presented the family with a stunning defeat in the 1860 elections. Hindman's picked candidates routed the old-guard forces and the power of the dynasty was broken for the first time since territorial days. Hindman's defeat of the all- powerful political family of his day is one of the most profound events in Arkansas political history. Even more amazing since it was engineered and carried out by one young man.
After this remarkable victory Hindman turned his attention to the cause of Southern Rights and became a leading voice in favor of secession to protect them. Hindman was present in the House Chamber when the secession convention voted to secede from the Union.
Hindman proceeded to raise 6 companies of troops at Helena and 4 more at Pine Bluff. He was assigned to the Army of Tennessee and served during the Kentucky campaigns early on and got a reputation as an aggressive fighter. He led his brigade at the Battle of Shiloh, was wounded, and drew exceptionally high praise for his actions there. After recovering from his wounds he rejoined the army at Corinth. Meanwhile in Arkansas, Van Dorn had placed the State in a very precarious military position. The State was essentially undefended from the approaching Federal Army. Hindman was ordered to take command of the Trans-Mississippi.
When he arrived in Little Rock he found that he had no troops, no ammunition, no supplies, and a menacing enemy army only 35 miles from the capital city. Through a series of deceptions he managed to convince the Federals that the city was well defended and reinforced. He then proceeded to declare martial law, imposed price controls, enforced acceptance of Confederate notes, and launched efforts to make the Trans-Mississippi theater self-sustaining. He also instituted guerilla warfare tactics and ordered the destruction of all property that might fall into enemy hands as well as arranging to have the State's rivers blocked to prevent attack by Union gunboats. These were all measures necessary to the defense of the theater, but Hindman's political opponents protested vigorously to Richmond and had their last best hope ousted. Amazingly, Hindman had managed to scrape together a credible army during his command. His replacement, Theophilus Holmes, really had no clue. He was smart enough though to recognize General Hindman's abilities and relied on him for advice.
Hindman was ordered to northwest Arkansas. When he arrived he set out on an active campaign to drive the enemy from the State. This campaign culminated in the Battle of Prairie Grove. Hindman put together a brilliant plan to destroy the two parts of the Union Army in detail. During the battle Hindman's normally aggressive style was muted and he followed the suggestions of his subordinates and remained on the defensive at a critical juncture. The brilliant victory against a superior force that his plan foretold was turned into a bloody stalemate. Once again the voices of his political opponents was raised and he was transferred out of the State for good.
Hindman returned to the Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg. Like so many others under Bragg, Hindman soon became a scapegoat for Bragg's own failings and fell out of favor. When Bragg was relieved Hindman became a Corps commander but was relieved because President Davis normally appointed only West Point graduates to Corps command.
Hindman continued to serve the Army of Tennessee until wounded during the retreat to Atlanta. He spent several months recovering, during which time his daughter Sallie died of an illness. The Confederacy began collapsing during this period and Hindman and his family set out for Texas where he heard of the surrender.
Hindman had been committed to Southern independence for many years and so refused to surrender. He and his family crossed the border into Mexico along with many other former Confederates. Life in Mexico was discouraging he stayed there only until June of 1866. On his return he applied for a pardon from President Johnson which was refused. He was indicted for treason and arrested.
Nevertheless, Hindman immediately dove back into the political ring and began to actively promote the Democratic party among both whites and blacks who could vote. It is noted that during one speech in Trenton he convinved 48 black Republicans to join the Democratic party. If Hindman had lived and managed to successfully bring African-Americans into the Democratic party one can only imagine how differently reconstruction in Arkansas would have been. A bi-racial Democratic party in control of the State during reconstruction could have been a model for the South to follow. On can say this is only wishful thinking, but defeat of the Arkansas Dynasty would have been wishful thinking in 1859. One cannot discount the man who accomplished the latter from accomplishing the former.
Unfortunately for Arkansas and the South, General Hindman was assassinated while sitting in his living room in Helena with his children at his feet. He was shot through the neck and jaw by musketry through his window. Hearing the shots a crowd gathered around the house. Hindman realized that he was mortally wounded and made his way to his porch. With perfect composure he urged his supporters to "unite their courage and determination to bring peace to the people." He indicated that his shooting was politically motivated and offered a blanket forgiveness to his murderers. He asked for forgiveness, arranged for the care of his family and died.
His murderers were never found out. Speculation centered around the Republican Party, assuming that they had killed him because "he had gained the confidence of the negroes". It was stated that "none desired his death but the radicals". Republican Reverend Joseph Brooks and recently been annhilated in a debate with Hindman and the finger of suspicion pointed directly at him. Republicans offered up several alternative suspects, some ridiculous, some credible. The crime was never solved.
Needless to say, General Hindman was the most important political figure in the State immediately prior to the war, the most important military figure during the war, and had the potential to be the most important healing force for the State after the war. For these reasons he deserves to be remembered and granted his rightful place in Arkansas history.